In April 2004, during a private audience with Grandfather Fire, Deanna Jenne was given a mission to gather others of like heart and to establish a community in which its members would model living from a balanced and mutual relationship with the Land, the natural world and each other. After a gestation period of dreaming and due diligence, the Mesa Life Project (MLP) sprouted in October 2006 with the purchase of land which sits on the Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world. Twelve years of learning and growing ensued. Throughout, the vision was held in a strong way and now a new phase of growth is at hand. ATF caught up with Deanne Jenne, who leads the MLP Council and Chris Schlake, MLP Communications Director, to find out what is happening on the Mesa.
ATF: Many of the Sacred Fire Community (SFC) family who have been around for a while have heard about the Mesa Life Project, at least to know that it exists. Apparently there are now lots of new activities happening that you would like to let the world know about. Where shall we start?
Chris: Like Ram Dass says in his memoir, we are “Still Here”! We’ve been at this for a while even if a lot of it seems to have been under the radar. We haven’t been passive or dormant; in fact we’ve been engaged in a whole wide range of tasks all this time. This has revolved around people, relationships, the ebb and flow of community life. This project has had it’s own timing and has been unfolding in ways different than we expected. But the fire is certainly still burning.
ATF: It’s been almost ten years since you bought the land. You have had to be in a sort of holding pattern while dealing with legal issues related to easements and getting an environmental assessment study required by the Bureau of Land Management. What is the situation now?
Deanna: We paid off the land, 80 acres, last year. The title company finally came through with the legal easement and the road in is being built as we speak. We are working with an architect who is doing the engineering drawings now for our first community house. We are meeting with a potential general contractor. We’ve met with solar designers and heat exchange designers, since we will be totally off the grid. As it turns out, it’ll take this summer to get the water and electricity infrastructure in place to build a house, so we are looking at summer 2017 for construction to start. The house will be built using time-tested, natural building methods that should allow it to stand strong for hundreds of years, maybe even 500. In my dreams, the next seven generations would live in this first house.
ATF: You’ve had to exercise a lot of patience, as well as the courage to let go of expectations these many years, it would seem.
Deanna: Well you know, in the beginning there was a honeymoon phase and we had 25 people interested. We were meeting weekly for a year but then when the dreaming time was over and we needed to take action to buy the land, most everybody decided they didn’t really have the money to join us. My husband Gary and I, after being on a very long walk on the land, got a message from Grandfather Fire later that night to “make a bold move”. I don’t know what we did, but Chris and his wife Paige committed (maybe we threatened to tie them up) and then other people got courageous, even some that we didn’t know, and we all really took a cliff jump.
Chris: We now have a shared experience around the nature of trust. When people leave, it’s not only a loss that needs to be grieved, but it rattles trust. This has been a huge commitment to make together and we come to rely on our comrades. So when people leave, which of course happens, the trust that they will be in it to the end is shaken. But the process of building and re-building trust has been part of the project from the beginning. It has been a very serpentine process, not linear at all. When you think you are building something…some part of you wants it to be linear, from here to here to here and then boom, done. It’s not at all like that. There is a challenge and opportunity to trust a process that is not at all linear. It is flowing in a direction, just not in a straight line. Trust is also related to the bold moves we take. There have been these punctuated moments along the way that asked of us to take big leaps of faith, to trust there would be something on the other side to catch us.
Deanna: Every time something has come up that shook us… in just staying with the process… another piece/part of the road would open up. For instance the next day the lawyer would call and say, “this part is good now”…over and over and over that happened.
There is a lesson about stamina, which we have also learned in this waiting period. Our property is bordered by elk conservation easement. Recently Gary and I and Heidi, a recent addition to our community, were out on the land checking on the road construction. There was a herd of elk “in the house”, where it had been mapped out on the ground. They were lying down in a bedroom, eating grass in the kitchen. Elk are often seen as an animal with great stamina. We watch them climb the hill, the steepest part of the hill. They are so strong and witnessing that energy has given us the strength too, to withstand the losses and major sadnesses as several people have left, some quite recently. And once again there is this balance with the arrival of a very long awaited baby for Chris and his wife Paige.
ATF: Will you have to have a conversation with the elk about choosing a different resting spot?
Deanna: Well, besides the 275 acres that encircle us they have lots and lots of space. We are on an elk migration route. We really want to be good stewards of this place. We do a lot to honor the Land and the Beings here.
There is an anecdote I want to share. Last week our solar energy designer Johnny walked on the land for the first time. I don’t know him that well but we had met when I was in the solar industry back in the 80s. So he came and he was looking around and he was in awe of the place. I could hear him whispering to himself, “This is such holy land. This is really a sacred place. This place carries the sky like no place.” I found myself sinking down and crying into the earth. That is how I feel about the Land. (At this point Deanna starts tearing up again). For people to say, “this isn’t my place”, it is hard for me to appreciate that, because I am so in love with this place and we’ve had so many ceremonies here. We always give offerings when we walk on the land and always ask for guidance and ask the spirits to teach us how to be on the land. Now people are feeling the resonance of that. For someone who is a stranger to this place to have that reaction like Johnny did…it spoke volumes of what we have been doing here. That is despite the fact that there was a road newly carved into the property. The sacredness is very palpable.
ATF: So you have many things to celebrate right now: the elk, a new baby, moving forward with construction. What else?
Chris: Celebration. It’s such an important part of this project. In fact, we have all these celebrations coming up: the River Gratitude ceremony, the Creation Story dance, the men’s trip to make Offerings to Father Sun, the baptism of our son. I wonder if we maybe don’t express this about our community as well as we could: a most important part of the project is how we really are about celebrating our belonging to the world, our embeddedness in the fabric of this world…. this is so obscured in our everyday life. I can tell one little story about this that may be germane.
When Paige and I first moved back to Colorado, we lived in a traditional Mongolian yurt for almost 2 years (By the way, this is not going to be a community of yurts!) What we experienced living in that structure is that one is not barricaded from the natural world. It’s more like a permeable membrane – you hear the rain, you smell the rain, you hear/feel the wind, you are connected. We had this beautiful skylight in the middle – the sky was part of the room at all times. We lived profoundly connected with the world. In fact, this is a little aside – I just bumped into this very interesting book “Owning the Earth”. It is about the historical process that yielded this very anomalous and unprecedented fact of individual ownership. Before, ownership had always been collective. The way homes were built, involved one large room. As the privatization thing came into consciousness, people wanted private rooms for this and that activity, which is a symptom of what was and has been happening in the culture.
Deanna: Our architect, she lives in Oregon, ran us through a visualization, so we could figure out how to build our first house, which would have a number of families in it. What I saw, it looked like a lot of people coming in and out and having lots of room for kids to even bunk up together in a room. There is to be spaciousness for people to gather; it just feels like a lot of people will be in and out of our community. You know, the housing piece is just one small part of the vision of our community. Right now it is our biggest focus because that is what we are doing right now but I think that it will be a place for both children and adults to learn about nature. It is very wild where we live; it’s very, very wild. The antidote is reconnecting with nature; from there we can reconnect with our hearts. I’m just remembering somebody reminding me about Grandfather coming in May 2014 to talk about the Story of the Colorado River. He said that this land, not just this land that we live on, but also this area, is land where people need to come to reconnect with their heart. I just feel with the way the world is we have a special place that is very unique. There are not many places like this left, and it will be a place where a lot of people will come seeking that connection again.
Chris: If we are looking a couple of hundred of years into the future, what I see is people who KNOW that connection. What came up for me during the visualization Deanna mentioned earlier is that the people who will live here will know, without a doubt, that they belong. When I see the people on the land, in our buildings – these are people who know: that they belong to each other, to the Land, to the world. Maybe that is like a psychological slant on it, but that is what their inner life is. It is taken for granted. It is just a deep-seeded knowing of their belonging, particularly to each other. I think we are moving in that direction. It’s still kind of a novel experience, this sense that we really belong to each other.
ATF: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know, now that construction of the first home is projected for 2017?
Deanna: First off, anybody interested in what we are doing should feel free to reach out to us through our website, http://www.mesalifeproject.org/. We are looking for more members. In some ways, now when someone comes along and they are in alignment with our vision, then it may be easier to fall into it, like the 100th monkey effect.
Chris: Although I think it can be hard in a different way, because it takes courage to jump onto an already moving train and to trust the process. I imagine it takes a particular quality of courage to be vulnerable, to allow one’s participation to be somewhat improvisational as one enters the mix of community without having all the lived history to share.
Deanna: People should know that we are a demonstration project in that we are moving away from the old paradigm of ownership. For instance, no one will hold a personal deed to this house. Instead, we each own shares.
ATF: Deanna, as the Head of the MLP Council (a position affiliated with the Spirit of Bear), do you feel confident that at this point, if you had to take the training wheels off and you would no longer have Grandfather’s guidance in the way He has come to teach us – do you feel that you will be able to receive the Guidance directly?
Deanna: What I hear every single day is, “I am always with you”. Grandfather says that. I hear that every day. I feel confident that we are going to fall off the wagon and make mistakes, and that we are going to learn and get back on and hear what the right way is. Grandfather has not been here in 3 years and we have been moving along quite well, I think. We have made good decisions.
Chris: I’ve had moments of worry about what would happen when this whole phenomenon disappears, the fallout and the consequences. Yet just in this conversation I feel a lot of confidence that when the community is up and running it will be a support and container for hearing the voice of Heart. Living here between land and sky, it will provide a lifestyle where I will be even more supported to hear my heart. I think I’ve never fully owned that or saw it quite like that before.
ATF: Thank you for taking the time to give us an update about the Mesa Life Project. We look forward to checking back in with you in the future.
 See https://www.sacredfirecommunity.org/events/grandfatherfires/ for more about Grandfather Fire